BEYOND KAVANAH (pages 316-317)
What we feel primarily is our inability to feel adequately. Human inadequacy is not an inference of humility; it is the truth of existence. A mitsvah is neither a substitute for thought nor an expression of kavanah. A mitsvah is an act in which we go beyond the scope of our thought and intention. He who plants a tree rises beyond the level of his own intention. He who does a mitsvah plants a tree in the divine garden of eternity.
With a sacred deed goes a cry of the soul, inarticulate at times, that is more expressive of what we witness, of what we sense than words.
A pious man is usually pictured as a sort of bookworm, a person who thrives among the pages of ancient tomes, and to whom life with its longing, sadness, and tensions is but a footnote in a scholarly commentary on the Bible. The truth is that a religious man is like a salamander, that legendary animal that originates from a fire of myrtlewood kept burning for seven years.
Religion is born of fire, of a flame, in which the dross of the mind and soul is melted away. Religion can only thrive on fire. “The Lord spoke unto Moses…This they shall give…half a shekel for an offering to the Lord” (Exodus 30: 13). Said Rabbi Meir: “The Lord showed unto Moses a coin of fire, saying: This is what they shall give.” A life of religion is an altar. “Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out” (Leviticus 6:6).
Man cannot live without acts of exaltation, without moments of trembling and revering, without being transported by grandeur. For weeks and months he may be confined to the routine of sensible interests, until an hour arrives when all his habits burst under the strain. Common sense may sign a decree that life be kept under the lock of average conceptions, but much in our lives is made to be burned up in a holy flame or it will rot in monstrous deeds, in evil thoughts. To satisfy his need for exaltation, man will plunge into rage, wage wars; he will set the city of Rome afire.
When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled in holiness.
~From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel